Superfast broadband is nearly here, but will it be available to everyone, and will subscription costs create a nation of web haves and have-nots? PC Advisor investigates.
Broadband Britain: Using mobile Wi-Fi
Being able to buy into a faster broadband service may not be possible, at least not for a few more months. However, there
are ways of getting online that can be used in a pinch.
The first is to get a 3G (mobile broadband) USB dongle.
This also depends on the availability of coverage in your area and may not be a viable alternative to regular broadband, depending on how much you're likely to use it. Data limits still tend to be restrictive, so make sure you check the terms and conditions of any such product at the mobile operator's site or a broadband-comparison website before you buy.
Another 3G option is the one on your mobile phone, if you have an unlimited data tariff and the ability to tether your handset for web access. It's not the most elegant solution, but allows you to get online when you wouldn't otherwise be able to. Essentially, you connect your laptop and smartphone by USB or Bluetooth and set the handset to share the web connection and act as a modem. The larger screen of the laptop is, of course, more convenient for prolonged web surfing sessions.
A similar concept is used by the 3 MiFi and the Vodafone 3G Mobile Router. Both make sharing web access using the 3G connection of an iPhone or other mobile device relatively straightforward. The web access can be shared by up to five devices, although you'll need to keep a check on your data usage.
For more on mobile connectivity, see page 'How to: Set up a Wi-Fi router and home network'.
Broadband Britain: Fibre-optic broadband
Fibre-optic broadband is offered from two main sources: BT and Virgin Media. Already more than 650,000 Virgin Media customers enjoy very fast broadband connections of either 20Mbps or 50Mbps. Not only that, but cable connections are free of the contention issues that afflict ADSL connections. The main drawback has been that you can only enjoy such smooth connectivity if there's a cable infrastructure in place – something not enjoyed by all of us.
However, Virgin Media also has a big piece of the ADSL broadband-provision pie, and has also been rolling out connections to customers beyond its cable network's scope. Virgin Media is in direct competition with BT to acquire current broadband customers. It has been looking to extend its reach to locations where decent broadband connections are not yet available. Last year it began trials using telegraph poles to string broadband cables up in the air.
Two types of fibre-optic broadband are being rolled out. The one that's likely to be of most interest is fibre to the home (FTTH), also known as fibre to the premises. In contrast to fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), FTTH replaces the entire broadband connection rather than stopping short of your home connection. It can provide connection speeds of up to 100Mbps and uploads of 40Mbps.
Having fibre all the way means you need a BT engineer to visit your home and install the service, replacing the existing copper line in your house. This takes a couple of hours and demands a £50 setup fee. Apart from this, it's simply a matter of arranging a date that suits – or will be once anyone can actually take up the offer of the service. While BT is trumpeting fibre-optic broadband as the future for us all, there are precious few locations where FTTH services are available.
For most of us, fibre-optic broadband means FTTC or fibre as far as the green cabinet somewhere on the street outside.
The same caveats about a one-off installation fee of £50 and the need to book in an engineer's visit still apply, but you do at least stand a chance of getting fibre-based home broadband this side of the London Olympics. Some 40 percent of the country ought to be able to choose fibre by the end of the year, but almost all will be via BT.
Only a couple of other broadband providers have begun trials so far, let alone offer fibre to their customers. Zen Internet and Demon are among these ISPs, and believe that being early to the fibre-optic broadband party will earn them greater market share and lots of new business.
Fibre-optic broadband of this sort promises download connections of 40Mbps as a theoretical maximum. Your ability to take advantage depends on whether your local telephone exchange is geared up for it. There also needs to be an available cabinet that can provide that crucial last few yards of cabling to your home or small business.
Broadband Britain: The waiting game
The number of broadband exchanges enabled for fibre is getting bigger all the time. Head here to see BT's updated list of exchanges scheduled to be upgraded and when, as a PDF.
If you know the name of your exchange, look for its name in the checklist to see if it's already enabled or for the projected date for services to commence. Note, however, that an enabled exchange isn't necessarily a guarantee that you can get fibre-optic broadband. You also need your nearest cabinet to be ready to deliver it.
While it's good to know if and when fibre may become an option, it's also useful to find out what's currently available to you and to get a realistic idea of the connection speeds you'll actually be able to enjoy. An online checker such as PC Advisor's Home Broadband Comparison, BroadbandChoices.co.uk or Top10Broadband.com will show you the best deals available for your location. You can also enter your postcode and home telephone number into the checker facility on an ISP's website to see what it can offer you.
Another useful resource is the real speed checker and analysis tool at Top10.com/broadband. This offers a street-by-street look at actual broadband connection speeds achieved and via which ISP. Results are offered for the past one to three months, but bear in mind that the usefulness of the Street Stats data may depend on your neighbours having recently checked their broadband performance.
You won't necessarily need to pay more for your broadband in order to enjoy a faster web connection delivered over the fibre-optic network. BT has temporarily halved its Infinity subscription costs as an incentive. An up-to-20Mbps ASDL connection with a download limit of 40MB per month costs from £17 and includes some HD TV content. A new two-year contract needs to be taken out and you must have a BT phoneline.
By comparison, the cheapest BT Infinity home-broadband offering costs £19, with the same download cap and an 18-month minimum contract. BT Option 2, meanwhile, provides unlimited (within reason) downloads on a 40Mbps connection for £24 per month.
NEXT: Making the switch >>
- What's happening in Broadband Britain?
- Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
- Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
- Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options